Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Louvre during World War II

A Russian director on how culture becomes a spoil of war.
One masterpiece in a lifetime may be more than we reasonably can expect from any artist. Russian Ark (2003) stands as such a work, director Alexandr Sokurov's tour de force.

In Russian Ark, Sokurov took us through St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum in a single, resonant 100-minute take that allowed us to immerse in 200 years of Russian history.

So when Sokurov turned his attention to the Louvre in Francofonia, his latest movie, expectations inevitably ran high, perhaps so high that even Sokurov couldn't meet them.

In Francofonia, Sokurov takes an unfortunately discursive look at the fabled French museum during World War II, focusing on two men: Jacques Jaujard, the Louvre's war-time director, and Franz Wolff-Metternich, the German officer and art expert chosen by Hitler to preside over the Louvre.

Jaujard and Metternich had an uneasy relationship, but both wanted to preserve the artistic heritage of the West by ensuring that the Louvre would retain its status even after the war. Much of the Louvre's art was hidden around the country prior to the German occupation, and Metternich seems to respect efforts to keep the Louvre French.

Not content to limit himself, Sokurov uses the story of Jaujard and Metternich as the basis for a sometimes intriguing, often ponderous examination of deeper questions about the way art is acquired.

In Sokurov's view, art and war are inevitable bedfellows, an observation he shares in a narration that he delivers. When countries are conquered, art becomes a spoil of war.

Sokurov's observations thread through a movie that employs location shooting, awkwardly acted re-enactments involving Jaujard and Metternich, newsreel footage of the German occupation of Paris and appearances by actors playing Napoleon and Marianne, French symbol of liberty.

Sokuruv further confuses matters with a recurring piece of business in which he attempts to communicate with the captain of a ship that's carrying valuable art through a powerful storm. A culture's artistic heritage threatened by natural turmoil? An attempt to add another layer of metaphor?

Informative, self-involved, stimulating and scattered, Francofonia can't always find a balance between brilliance and banality. I'm not sure I'd call it a failed work, but I certainly wouldn't proclaim it a wonder, either.

Still, it was nothing short of brave for Sokurov to make another museum-based movie after Russian Ark. Or maybe it was folly: After all, any artist who creates a masterwork forever is condemned to compete with him or herself.

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